Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s unprecedented ongoing three-day visit to The Arab Republic of Egypt is aimed at signing a security cooperation agreement and at further consolidating defence cooperation.[i] Once again, this high-level visit underlines the importance of Middle East in India’s foreign policy aspirations. With the signing of the cooperation agreement, Egypt will become the eighth country in the wider Middle East after Iran (2001), the UAE (2003), Qatar (2008), Saudi Arabia (2014), Oman (2016), Israel (2017) and Jordan (2018) with which New Delhi has signed similar (Memorandum of Understanding) MoUs over the years. Likewise, it will be the sixth Arab country in West Asia to have security cooperation with India.
Defence and security relations between India and Egypt have been on an upswing in the last few years though in an unofficial set-up. With Indian focus on defence indigenization and co-production through Make in India and Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) initiatives over heavy procurement and imports from friendly foreign countries; a vibrant and sustainable market is pertinent to sell its defence related products. While India is still in the nascent stage of its indigenization process, the export items consist of ‘value market’[ii] products which are only available with the developing countries with middle or lower economies. Keeping the above in mind, New Delhi has identified 42 countries to whom they are selling their weapon platforms, Egypt is one of them. India’s exports to economies such as Qatar, Lebanon, Iraq, Uruguay, Japan, Equador and Egypt, are primarily comprised of body protecting equipment. Furthermore, Egypt is one of the six countries which have evinced interest in procurement of India’s Tejas aircraft.[iii]
While India imports its aero-engine industrial component primarily from US, France and UK, the country has made concerted efforts to at least diversify and engage with other economies especially in terms of importing components and parts. India is engaging with many developing countries such as South Korea, Singapore, Israel, Brazil, UAE, Malaysia. In this aspect, Egypt is also one of India’s engaging partners for aero-engine components.[iv]
Prior to the Defence Minister’s official visit, Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari had visited Cairo in November 2021 to enhance cooperation between the two air forces. Similarly, by July, Indian Navy had intensified its naval exchanges with Egypt.[v] India and Egypt have held major joint Air Force and Naval exercises. Probably, in the times to come, we may see similar defence overtures from Indian Army.
While the Indian Minister has fulfilled his diplomatic sojourn in Cairo, it becomes pertinent to assess India’s new found interest in the African Arab Republic after a decade gap. In the current geopolitical and geoeconomic dynamics, a security cooperation with a strategic neighbour becomes necessary, however, given the compatible history, geostrategic centrality in the Indo-Pacific affairs, a vibrant market for Indian agricultural produce, and near similar independent foreign policy stance, makes Egypt a desirable and a natural strategic partner. Therefore, it is only reasonable that New Delhi starts to woo Cairo through an expanded strategic partnership prism in the times to come. There are various reasons to substantiate such a position.
Foremost, Nehru-Nasser leadership, their global outlook and the independent foreign policy culminating into adapting a non-aligned approach formed the bedrock of Indo-Egyptian relations, that too in a time when the world was divided into aligning with the erstwhile two blocs. With the changing global geopolitical dynamics especially with regard to the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war, India is once again at the crossroads and is delineating its own independent path by employing its strategic autonomy and hedging. Analogously, Egypt is doing the same and is performing a fine balancing act while placing itself in between the West, in Africa, in the Arab World, in the wider Middle East and also in Asia. It is only logical that the two nations would want to further their ‘special friendship’.[vi] Therefore, Cairo’s prominent featuring in New Delhi’s foreign policy is unsurprising.
Second, India’s defined and key role in the Indo-Pacific and in the wider Indian Ocean Region call for a balancing relation with the Eastern, Central and Western flanks of the Indian Ocean. This means that it needs to develop a healthy relation with the countries in all these flanks. With its ‘Act East’ overture, New Delhi has tried to engage deeply with countries in the eastern and central Indo-Pacific, likewise through ‘Look West’ policy, India’s engagement with the West Asian economies is on the upswing especially post-2014. These developments are also aimed at India’s strategic interest in the important chokepoints in the Indian Ocean. Interestingly, one of such chokepoints, namely, Suez Canal, is controlled by the Egyptian Republic. The strategic importance of Egypt in the Indo-Pacific region, makes it an important player for India to thoroughly engage with. Egyptian scholar Mohammed Soliman, who coined the term Indo-Abrahamic Accord, believes that ‘there is no Indo-Pacific without Egypt and the Suez Canal’.[vii] Therefore, the bilateral engagement becomes furthermore crucial.
Third, despite economic and domestic challenges, over the years, Egypt under the Presidentship of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is looking for greater strategic influence and power within and beyond the region. Reinvigorated Cairo’s decisive role in the Libyan civil war, its participation in the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, joint military and naval exercises with European Union member states[viii] and its mediatory role in the Middle East Peace Process involving Arab-Israel conflict, reflects the Arab country’s diplomatic capabilities to take on such strategic matters. Additionally, its interest to be part of Eastern oriented and middle power alliances, partnerships and multilateral forums through its ‘Look East’ policy further testifies Egypt’s ambition to play larger roles in the global dynamics. Cairo’s application for membership in BRICS (acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in July[ix] and its inclusion as a ‘Dialogue Partner’ in the recently concluded Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit on 16 September[x], attests Egypt’s willingness to join multilateral forums beyond West. In that regard, the reassertion for an independent foreign policy by both New Delhi and Cairo is likely to bring the two countries closer. It is safe to admit that India’s ‘Look West’ policy is compatible with Egypt’s ‘Look East’ policy and it needs to be harnessed at the optimum level possible.
Fourth, in the wake of rising food security challenges escalated by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, Egypt, a net importer of food items can serve as a good market for India’s agricultural exports. During April-June, Egypt approved India as its wheat supplier and the latter aims to export around 3 million tonnes of wheat to the former. By June, India had already exported 180,000 tonnes of wheat to the Arab Republic. Moreover, with the I2U2 (acronym for India Israel UAE and US) like minilaterals focused on addressing food security and allied non-conventional challenges, countries like Egypt who are worst affected by the phenomenon could be given observer status. India imports US$670 million worth of fertilizers, and the commodity being the second largest import to India from Egypt after mineral oil, fertilizer seems to be a strategic commodity of import from the country. Notably, the Arab Republic is the third largest exporter of fertilizer to India in the region after Saudi Arabia (US$ 1,894.64 million) and Oman (US$1,038.58 million).[xi]
Lastly, despite economic adversity, Egypt continues to be India’s 35th largest trading partner with a total trade of US$7,264.75 million (export US$3,743.26 million, import US$3,520.83 million with a trade balance of US$223.09 million), and mineral oil, fertilisers and cotton and textile are the major items of imports from the country. Regardless of oil imports being miniscule and one of the lowest in the Arab world (contributes to only 1.07 per cent of India’s total requirements) in the commodity basket, India may look at expanding its volume of oil imports on year-on-year basis to balance the deficit caused by incessant violent outbreaks in other parts of the Gulf especially in Iraq and Iran. By engaging economically with Egypt, India will not only help out the former in coming out of economically adverse situation but will also gain a sustainable partner. This will also come handy in expanding its defence market in the country.
On balance, the Indian defence outreach to Egypt is not only a desirable and sensible step forward but a much needed one. Given Egypt’s geostrategic significance and willingness to engage with the outside world with an open-minded approach, India should look forward to extending its engagement beyond the domain of security and defence and must engage at a strategic partnership level. Cairo’s centrality in the Indo-Pacific makes it an even more desirable a strategic partner.
[i]The Hindu (2022), “India, Egypt sign MoU to further defence cooperation”, 20 September, available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-egypt-sign-mou-to-further-defence-cooperation/article65913296.ece, accessed on 20 September 2022.
[ii] Value Market is the small arms market which consists of low-end or mid-end arms with smaller transactional values of new and refurbished equipment. While the US dominates the high-end arms market, value market is the second emerging market which mainly consists of buyers from developing countries which are looking for better deals for a refurbished product. There are about 112 countries that are dependent on ‘value market’ to procure their defence products, India being one of them. Given its nascent stage, India is supplying in the value market as of now with 42 countries as its buyers.
[iii] Elizabeth Roche (2020), “India now exports defence products to 42 countries”, Livemint, 10 February, available at https://www.livemint.com/industry/manufacturing/india-now-exports-defence-products-to-42-countries-11581332398457.html, accessed on 20 September 2022.
[iv] World Bank (2019), “India engines; parts of aircraft engines imports by country 2019”, World Integrated Trade Solutions (WITS), available at https://wits.worldbank.org/trade/comtrade/en/country/IND/year/2019/tradeflow/Imports/partner/ALL/product/840910, accessed on 20 September 2022.
[v] Dipanjan Roy Chaudhary (2022), “India intensifies defence exchanges with Egypt”, The Economic Times, 6 July, available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-intensifies-defence-exchanges-with-egypt/articleshow/92696260.cms?from=mdr, accessed on 20 September 2022.
[vi] Nayanima Basu (2022), “India and Egypt work towards building strategic relationship with focus on defence and security” The Print, 2 July, available at https://theprint.in/diplomacy/india-and-egypt-work-towards-building-strategic-relationship-with-focus-on-defence-security/1021843/, accessed on 20 September 2022.
[vii]Mohammed Soliman (2021), “There is no Indo-Pacific without Egypt and the Suez Canal”, Middle East Institute, 20 April, available at https://www.mei.edu/blog/there-no-indo-pacific-without-egypt-and-suez-canal, accessed on 20 September 2022.
[viii]Branislav Stanicek (2021), “Egypt’s foreign policy within a challenging regional context”, European Parliamentary Research Service, EPRS Briefing, October, available at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2021/698062/EPRS_BRI(2021)698062_EN.pdf, accessed on 20 September 2022.
[ix] Manjari Singh (2022), “Iran’s membership to the SCO and what it entails?”, CLAWS Focus, 15 September, available at https://www.claws.in/irans-membership-to-the-sco-and-what-it-entails/, accessed on 20 September 2022.
[x]Gobran Mohammed (2022), “Egypt becomes Shanghai Cooperation Organisation dialogue partner”, Arab News, 15 September, available at https://www.arabnews.com/node/2163121/middle-east, accessed on 20 September 2022.
[xi] Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) (2021), Export Import Data Bank (annual), available at https://tradestat.commerce.gov.in/eidb/default.asp, accessed on 20 September 2022.